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Latin America Shawn Dispatch

The Lion, the Witch and the Canoe!
(AKA, The Canoe Trip Through Time)

Shawn enjoying the good life on Lago Atitlÿn.
Less than fifty years ago there were no motor boats on Lago Atitlán. The only way for the people who lived here to get from town to town was either to walk on the long winding trails around the lake, or to arduously row across in a kayuko. A kayuko is a traditional a Mayan canoe that is carved out of the trunk of a tree, which makes it very heavy and difficult to row and maneuver. To make things even more difficult, kayukos are rowed standing up. Even so, many people on the lake still use them for fishing and getting from village to village today.

I decided to try out a kayuko with my friend Eric to get across the bay from Santiago to Chutinamit, the unexcavated Mayan pyramids that were never abandoned until the Spanish Conquistadors arrived at Atitlÿn. The ruins have long since been covered with vegetation, but their outline can still be seen from across the lake. Although they are pretty big structures, they seem small compared to the immense volcano which towers above them.

Shawn's friend, Eric, takes a seat.
We were greeted by strange and curious looks as Eric and I boarded our kayuko at the docks in Santiago and clumsily navigated out into the open water of the lake. It was evening and we were greeted by many other kayukos heading in for the night after a hard day of fishing or rowing goods to the other villages. The water was calm at first and we were rowing west into a spectacular sunset. We were trying to row in the traditional way--standing up. Suddenly, from nowhere, the north wind picked up and the waves started to get a little rough; sitting down seemed like a good idea. It took us about half an hour to row the mile or so across the bay while battling the wind and stopping now and then to take in the last of the suns warming rays.

Chutinamit is a series of three pyramids built on top of a steep hill. We stashed the kayuko in the reeds, making sure it would not blow away, leaving us stranded on the wrong side of the bay. Although no one actually lives on the ruins themselves, there are a few houses around the base and there are cornfields all the way up the hill. As we worked our way above the houses and into these fields it became very clear that there was once a great civilization here. The corn grows intermittently between large boulders that stick out the hillside. Upon closer inspection we could see that these rocks were all very square in shape and smooth, obviously carved by human hands. It looked like the hill itself had actually been carved into a pyramid.

Treasures of Chutinamit
When the Spanish finally reached Chutinamit in the 1500's the indigenous people put up a long hard fight. When they realized that they were beaten they took everything of any value, including pots and carvings, and smashed it on the walls of the hillside. Today, the earth here is still littered with artifacts from this time. Eric and I found hundreds flint arrowheads and pot fragments, some of which still had paint on them. If it wasn't getting dark so fast we could have spent hours just sifting through the soil marveling at these treasures, but since the light was fading we hurried up to the crest where the remnants of the pyramids still stand.

Although they are crumbling, the tops of the three pyramids are still clearly visible. One still has an opening and a passage that leads ten or fifteen feet inside. I climbed inside a little ways, but without a flashlight I didn't want to venture too far since I had no idea what sort creatures live there these days. The outline of the main square and the ball court are still visible as well, although both have now been covered with soft grass and variety of different trees and plants. It was remarkable to see nature reclaiming something so immense and solid as stone pyramids.

Spectacular sunset on the lake.
It was completely dark by the time we started down, and the hillside was very loose and steep, so we kept slipping and stumbling. There was no real path, so we just went down, but when we got the bottom of the hill we were met by thick jungle. We were forced to crawl and climb over vines and thick bushes to get back to our kayuko. Rowing back, we were the only ones still out on the lake. Venus and Saturn were both out on the horizon and the moon was nearly full, so we could see where we were going. We took our time, not in any big hurry to get back to modern civilization.

When I got back I checked my email, and was surprised to find a message asking me to hurry to go to Costa Rica to interview the former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias. I was excited at this opportunity, but sad to be leaving Guatemala a week earlier than I had expected. It is strange how fast you grow to love a place. Although I was only there for five weeks, there are many things I will miss about Guatemala, especially the beautifully dressed and friendly indigenous people. I do look forward to the many incredible places that I will visit on the way to Peru, but it is sad to leave a place where you have had many incredible experiences and made some friends. I guess this is just one of the sacrifices you have to make if you want to be a world trekker.


Team - I Need to Be WHERE?!? WHEN?!?
Kevin - La Cucaracha! La Cucaracha!
Kevin - La Cuacaracha, the KIDS' VERSION
Monica - Of Gritos and Guerras: Contrast between Nicaragua and Costa Rica
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